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Tracking the Beaufort bears: Day 11

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Midday in Kaktovik with dense fogMidday in Kaktovik with dense fog

WWF’s polar bear coordinator, Geoff York, keeps up his field knowledge with trips out onto the ice to check on the condition of the bears. This year, he is keeping a daily blog of his experiences over two weeks. Keep visiting this blog for regular updates and live the life of a polar bear biologist.

By Geoff York

When I look out the window a little after 6 AM, the view is grim: snow and fog. The ice must be moving offshore and leads opening as we suddenly have a lot more moisture in the air, and the temperature is up to -15 C. After coffee and some cereal, we get ready to wait out the weather. I have a proposal to review for a graduate student in Alaska and plenty of other inside work to keep me busy. I also take advantage of the lull to connect with my family and do some laundry.

It also provides a chance to catch up with our U.S. Fish and Wildlife colleagues who are conducting capture work to the West in the Chukchi Sea. Their helicopter is down for routine maintenance and so they are also in their field office. The Chukchi work is relatively new and logistically much more challenging. That system is biologically more productive and the sea ice much more dynamic creating good spring polar bear habitat over a much larger area. This leads to the bears being more spread out and requires much more search effort to locate them.

This is the second year of capture and collaring work in the Chukchi, a data deficient area for polar bears. This also marks the year that the new U.S./Russia Bilateral Agreement will finally go into full effect, so having some fresh data on this population will be critical to inform this new management agreement. Both the USFWS and WWF are also working with our Russian colleagues to generate some concurrent research activity on Wrangell Island and along the Chukotka coast. Conducting similar capture work in Russia will be very expensive and logistically challenging even by Chukchi standards, but it is critical we gain a better understanding of this region.

The Chukchi work sounds like it is going well and our friends give us a good natured hard time about the small males we are catching in the SBS. Likely due to the greater biological productivity, greater diversity and abundance of prey, the males in the Chukchi system appear to grow much larger than their SBS cousins! The hunting records from the 1970’s appear to back up this trend as well. We don’t mind as we will handle twice the number of bears in the same length of season and we are all happy to be out in the field working with these amazing animals in such magnificent environments.

I put some red beans on the stove for dinner later tonight and set about making two pumpkin pies. Cooking for me is a hobby and a great way to focus on something other than the weather or the bears for a short time. Staying in a bunkhouse is great as it affords a communal atmosphere with field teams and everyone pitches in to cook and clean.

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